Who's on first?
No, the most pivotal question facing the Pirates between these final few weeks and the start of the 2010 season will be this: Who's on third?
Andy LaRoche is there now, Neil Walker is making a push from Class AAA, and top prospect Pedro Alvarez at Class AA could arrive as early as next year. And how that situation plays out, as general manager Neal Huntington acknowledges, could determine much of the rest of the position-player picture for the foreseeable future.
"With first base, second base, shortstop and the outfield, those are questions we're sorting through," Huntington said. "But, until we have a guy who we feel is rock solid at third, it doesn't make sense to move anyone else."
Start with LaRoche.
He turns 26 next month and, in his first full season of Major League Baseball, is batting .256 with six home runs and 44 RBIs, which represents neither the average nor the power the Pirates seek from third base. But he has improved dramatically on defense -- for which he and others credit infield instructor Perry Hill -- to the point he is the clear top choice there with the glove.
Just ask Hill.
• Game: Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (11-8, 4.15) vs. RHP Joe Blanton (8-6, 3.86).
• Key matchup: Garrett Jones hit a mammoth home run off Blanton July 10, only the third at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park to clear a tall batter's eye well beyond center field. "Should have counted for two," Blanton said that day.
• Of note: Jones can break the franchise rookie record for home runs in consecutive months. He and Dick Stuart, who had 14 in July/August 1958, currently share the mark.
"I haven't seen what those other guys have done in the minors," Hill said. "But I do know this: Our current third baseman has made himself into a really nice player, and I would hate to see him move from that spot right now. From the leaps and bounds he's made to be a Gold Glove-type of guy, I'm really proud of the job he's done all year."
Huntington apparently shares that view of LaRoche's glovework, but his approach to team-building is that defense should be the priority at shortstop, center field and catcher, and that the best bats should take the field from there.
Of LaRoche, he said, "We're looking for more bat. He doesn't have to be a 30-home-run guy, but can he hit more doubles with about 15 homers? That's enough production, with what he does defensively."
LaRoche played some second base while in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system and says he is confident he could do so in the majors, but his preference -- no surprise -- is to stay put.
Walker, who turns 24 next month, has had a .333 August with Indianapolis to raise his overall numbers to .258, with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs. The power has been promising, as has the defense -- International League managers last year voted him the best defensive third baseman -- but Walker's continuing low average and walk rates raise doubts about that power becoming meaningful.
Management is giving serious consideration to a September promotion, which would be Walker's first taste of the majors.
"No question, Neil has taken some strides," Huntington said.
Alvarez, 22, is obliterating Eastern League pitching with a .326 average, 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 52 games since being promoted to Altoona. Overall, he has 24 home runs and 88 RBIs. He also has 24 errors, but a recent visit from Huntington prompted him to state, more firmly than before, that Alvarez might stay at third base rather than move to first, as some scouts have predicted.
Alvarez's naturally thick 6-foot-3 frame is carrying about 230 pounds, or 10-15 more than the Pirates would like. Management's hope, after Alvarez completes a one-month tour of Europe with the United States' entry into the World Cup in September, is that he enters a rigid offseason conditioning program to achieve that weight loss, as well as unprecedented muscle mass.
"Pedro has the attributes to play third," Huntington said. "We just need them to play on a consistent basis."
Alvarez is the linchpin. If he can stay at third, the other two will move: LaRoche could go to second, and Walker, an exceptional all-around athlete dating to his baseball and football days at Pine-Richland High School, could try right field.
"Certainly, Andy has the athleticism to play elsewhere on the diamond," Huntington said. "Neil has that, too. And Pedro can go third or first, if we ever get to that point. Now is not the time. We've got six weeks to see how everyone does "
It gets murkier from here.
If Alvarez stays at third, the Pirates could pick a first baseman from Steve Pearce, Jeff Clement or Garrett Jones.
Pearce is there now, but his minor league production has yet to translate to the majors, and he is not yet seen as average defensively.
Clement, the top prospect from the Jack Wilson trade, has seven home runs in his first 23 games for Indianapolis and will be a September recall, mostly to work with glaring defensive deficiencies alongside Hill.
Jones has been an outstanding rookie at the plate, but he also can play the outfield, and the Pirates prefer to keep that option open because he can run well enough to handle right field at least adequately.
"First base is one position we might not know about even after next spring training," Huntington said.
Here is another wild card: What if Ryan Doumit played first?
Management is known to have seriously discussed the possibility of moving Doumit from catcher to first, not through any reflection of his work behind the plate -- which has steadily progressed -- but through a wish to preserve his health and keep his bat in the lineup more often.
The team has depth at catcher: Jason Jaramillo showed surprising offense as well as sound defense, and Robinzon Diaz appears to have a good bat. Down the road, first-round draft pick Tony Sanchez is tearing up Class A and is seen as a fast-track type.
Doumit wants very much to stay at catcher, though, and he has his backers within the organization.
At second base, Delwyn Young has plenty of work ahead to reach the point of being average defensively, but he clearly is willing to put in that work -- he and Hill are on the field early every day -- and his .312 average and power have the Pirates sounding like they would sacrifice a little defense to keep him in the lineup.
At shortstop, the Pirates have been satisfied with Ronny Cedeno's defense, pleasantly surprised by his offense. But, no matter their internal hopes for other players, they have no other answers. If Cedeno does not work out, someone from the outside will be needed for 2010.
In the outfield, Lastings Milledge will get a long look in left, and Andrew McCutchen in center probably is the only player assured of staying exactly where he is. Right field probably will go to prospect Jose Tabata before long, as he is batting .321 in his first month with Indianapolis. But Jones could go there, too, as could a dramatically upgraded version of Brandon Moss, or Walker or ...
"This is the challenging part with the whole picture, and these last six weeks are going to play into that a lot," Huntington said. "And the players, really, are the ones who will dictate the moves we make. It's a nice situation to have."
NOTES -- Troy Buckley will resign his post as the Pirates' minor league pitching coordinator in early September to return to his previous job as pitching coach for Long Beach State University. Buckley, hired by director of player development Kyle Stark in late 2007, was known for a heavy hand throughout the system, obtaining mixed results in the process. "He is leaving for personal reasons, as he wants to be a better dad for his three kids," Stark said. Buckley is a California native. No full-time replacement will be chosen until after the season. ... The Pirates have indefinitely suspended pitcher Mike Felix, their second-round draft pick in 2006, after he was charged with a DUI early Friday morning and benched by short-season State College over the weekend. The Daily Collegian reported yesterday that Felix had a .19 percent blood alcohol level. Felix, a 24-year-old left-hander, has struggled immensely with control as a professional, though his 3.33 ERA in 10 appearances this season has been an upgrade.